One August day, a long time ago, when the College Kritter was six years old, she ran into our bedroom, jumped on the bed, and looked through the window. She used to do that quite often, but that day she ran back to the living room and said: “I think that I have stepped on the baby’s head.” I felt as if my blood turned to ice and all the life energy simply left my body. Husband and I rushed into the room where our two-week old baby, Anya, was sleeping in our bed, right underneath the window. We woke her up, made her cry, and after finding out that she was fine, we hugged. I rocked the baby in my arms, while embracing the Kritter, and we stayed like that for a long time, until it was a communal crying fest.
We laugh whenever we mention that incident, but every time I feel a tiny remnant of the anguish and terror I felt that day, and try not to think of all the “what-ifs” that wash over me like a tidal wave. We barely avoided a tragedy, without any consequences. Or, if there were any, they might have been quite positive.
Before she learned to walk, the Kritter used to pull herself up using the spines of my many hard cover books, destroying many in the process. Zoe had no interest in books, but was mesmerized whenever a repairman would scatter his tools around, watching intently his every move. But Anya could spend hours immersed in a book, when she was barely eight or nine months old. She invented her own language and pretended to read, turning the pages gently, caressing them, looking at the letters and pictures even if the book was turned upside down.
I read with the Kritter until she started middle school. An hour before her bed time, we would sit together and read aloud, alternating pages. She admittedly liked the books, but did not like reading. The process was long and torturous, with tears on both of our faces at different times, but she became a reader. I do not have the time, nor patience to do it again with Zoe, and I feel as if I am betraying her. We had to hide her favorite picture books (Shitty Kitty and Poopy Puppy, as the College Kritter has renamed them), promising to release them only when we became convinced that she would enjoy a book with more than twenty pages printed in size 24 font. These days she is reading her way, slowly, for sure, through The Series of Unfortunate Events.
But Anya does not need any prompts. There are books wedged against the railing on her upper bunk bed, on her desk, in her closet, in the locker at school, and under the couch in the living room. Nothing can drive her to a state of panic as fast as the realization that she is close to finishing a book, and there is not another one lined up somewhere. Then she starts rummaging through our book shelves, looking for something to tide her over, unable to go to sleep without taking a trip into the world of wonder that only a printed page can bring.
We do not have to agonize for days what to buy her as a birthday gift. The only problem is a choice of reading material, because Husband and I, both avid readers, rarely agree on a topic. While I would like her to discover the adventurous and romantic world of pirates, musketeers, and knights, ridden with intrigue, backstabbing, and duels, but inevitably ending with a hero’s victory over evil, Husband pushes her toward the graphic novels and science fiction which marked his childhood, trying occasionally to lure her a bit early into Steinbeck, Lee Falk*, and Thomas Mallory, not always promising the same happy ending. I am introducing her to the European masters of the 19th and 20th century, those realists of verbose, descriptive, and erudite prose, and he is offering the stylistic simplicity of Hemingway and the crystalline storytelling of Alan Moore. I want her to get lost in the glens overgrown with heather and fall in love with dark-haired and mysterious Heathcliff, as I did when I was twelve. He wants her to read Cormier and Finney and learn the meaning of “42” (alas, he cannot share with her the infatuation with Wonder Woman, which stayed with him long after he turned twelve).
We bicker and we argue, but in the end we know that Anya will find her own style and discover the literary world that will be her own little den. Our intellectual tug-of-war can only open her mind to search further and encourage her to stray off the path.
She wears her emotions on her sleeve and tries to dramatize the most trivial moments in her life. She is sensitive and empathic. Her favorite movies are Love, Actually and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. While her classmates are shopping in Forever 21, she wears her Father’s shirt and the tie with the Magna Carta on it, pretending that she attends Hogwarts rather than Newhart Middle School. As exasperated as I get when I uncover the nests holding the Barbies and stuffed animals on top of the encyclopedias, I smile in relief knowing that my baby will not grow up too fast.
Tomorrow is the last day before the winter break. We have the symbolic presents for the teachers and the staff. But there are always “oh, by the way” moments in our lives, and Husband had to take the girls to the mall to buy gifts for friends, sharing with the world the fact that he was extremely reluctant and unenthusiastic. But that gave me an hour of solitude and silence to finally make Oeufs en Meurette. I embarked on the project of making an egg perfectly poached in fruity red wine, resting atop a crusty toasted piece of bread, enveloped in a flavorful reduction infused with herbs and vegetables, and embraced by browned mushrooms, crispy bacon, and softly sauteed pearl onions. I was feeling so French, flitting through my small kitchen, making bouquet garni, while Joe Dassin’s velvety voice filled the air around me with the old chanson Et Si Tun Existais Pas, which reminded me of my sister, our teenage years, and Michel from Granville, France, who stole my first kiss.
I could not wait for my girls to come back. The house smelled like a Parisian bistro, I was humming along with Joe, and my eggs were beautiful, quivering masterpieces. As I anticipated, they ran to the stove, breathing in the smell of sauteed vegetables, and stole a couple of extra pieces of crunchy bacon laying on the side. I had assembled a plate with the egg perching proudly on top of the sauce. I punctured it to let the yolk flow. As they watched, I heard Anya snickering. “It’s an alien embryo”! My beautiful sauce, carrying along the essence, but not the harshness of the wine, my yolks running like lava, liberated at last, the culinary delight ready to please… only to be seen as alien afterbirth by my beloved empath. Obviously, that little romp on the head did its damage. Her reference is not Wuthering Heights, but EC Comics.
* For the non-initiated, this dude created The Phantom. And yes, I had a crush on The Phantom, too.